Keyshawn Johnson’s history lesson starts with a question. In 2020, Newsday reporter Bob Glauber wants to write a book about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, who signed the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 to break the NFL’s effective ban on black players
Glauber figured he’d ask Johnson, who had been an outspoken member of the Jets when Glauber covered the team in the late ’90s. Johnson, like both players, is a native of Los Angeles, though he played college at USC long after Washington played well with Strode and Jackie Robinson on the same UCLA team in 1939 football.
However, Johnson said he was unaware of their importance as two of the four black players in breaking the NFL’s color barrier. He didn’t even know that the NFL owners had struck a gentleman’s agreement not to sign black players from 1934 to 1946. Johnson learned that the ban was only broken after businessmen and reporters in Los Angeles forced the Rams to sign Washington and Strode. Bill Willis and Marion Motley joined the Cleveland Browns in 1946.
Johnson’s lack of awareness shows how little the NFL has done to celebrate players. But that will change on Saturday, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame will present the Pioneer Award to players’ families at its annual dedication ceremony.
This wouldn’t have happened without Johnson and Glauber, who lobbied the lobby for honors and wrote “Forgotten Firsts: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis and Breaking the NFL Color Barriers”, published in 2021.
In a phone interview, Johnson and Glauber talk about why the history of the so-called “Forgotten Four” is largely unacknowledged, the impact of the NFL’s racist past and the impact that gives these four Blazers their due .
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concentration.
Keyshawn, you write that you don’t know Washington or Stroud, even though you played college football at the same Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum when they attended UCLA
Keshaun Johnson You know, when you think about it growing up, when you talk about African American communities or black schools, there are only four black people in history that are talked about: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harry Tubman. I mean, it’s pretty basic. Jackie Robinson in sports. Jesse Owens and a little bit of Arthur Ashe from The Sports World also joined. No real in-depth knowledge of history. When we go to college, it flushes and repeats again. They will teach us all about white history.
So when Bob brought this to my attention, it piqued my interest because it’s in my own backyard, just a few blocks from where I grew up. I don’t know anything about it because it just hasn’t been talked about. There is a monument at Kenny Washington Coliseum. But I don’t know if it’s there in the rose bowl. I just don’t remember seeing it, I played a lot of games there.
One of the most compelling parts of the book is the discussion of the implicit ban on signing black players. You point out that the segregationist owner of the Washington franchise, George Preston Marshall, led the ban, but you note that other owners agree with him.
Johnson It never happens to just one person. You can’t call everyone a racist, but you’re equally guilty when you tolerate it and you ignore it and you turn your head in the other direction. You are as at fault as the person who initiated it. That’s how professional sports and politics are today. Same thing, different era.
For decades, Major League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson and confronted the league’s ugly legacy of color disorder. Why did the NFL take so long to do this?
Johnson At the time, baseball was the number one sport in America when Jackie Robinson made the trade.And in football, you have Fritz Pollard [Pollard was the first Black head coach in pro football and won a championship as a player for the Akron Pros in 1920.] Then there were shutdowns when college football and baseball were bigger. The league tends to make a lot of mistakes and then try to correct them later on, so it might be completely over their heads and not out of range.
Bob Glauber This is not a particularly righteous story, banning black players. Black players now make up about 70 percent of the NFL’s entire roster. The league didn’t use the story to cover its glory.
That said, when we go to the league for analysis and opinion, starting with Roger Goodell, he has it. “That story is real, we can’t change it, we have to accept it,” he said.
The careers of the four players varied: some lasted longer. Some lasted, actually, quite briefly. Keyshawn, do any of their personal stories resonate with you more?
Johnson It’s more about how some of their teammates treat them, for better or worse. Those stories always haunt me. How someone like George Preston Marshall was retaliating against people and still being able to have a team and expect black players to serve him. To me, it’s unbelievable. At the same time, these players are still fighting hard not to let it have them, or lose their spirits by doing what they want to do, which is playing professional sports. Motley was basically hacked to play or coach in the NFL, but he kept going. That grit, that mental toughness is everything to me.
Race remains a core tension in the NFL, with Brian Flores’ lawsuit alleging discrimination in hiring, racial bias in concussion resolution and criticism of minority team owners of color. So will the four players be honored in the Hall of Fame change the dynamic?
Glauber It seems like an emotional conclusion to their story, as the Hall of Fame is honoring them. But for me, it’s really about starting to learn more about who they are, what they do and why they’re so important because they’re not a household name like Jackie Robinson. I don’t know if they will. But they should be.